New Terms and Old

Lots of terms for people have regionally specific origins, and many in turn never leave such confines. The term irredentist, for instance, which my computer loves to underline in red to let me know is at least questionable if not an outright mistake, will be clear to anyone who has studied Italian unification or the contested borders of the eastern Adriatic in the final years of the Habsburg Empire.

Kin deploys dozens of such words, and these are interspersed with other, often regionally specific, terms for family members, the local or long-time inhabitants of cities or regions, or newcomers to them.  There are three basic strategies for dealing with such locally specific lexical items: translate them into something that exists in English, explain them, or incorporate the non-English word into one’s text so that readers learn it. Each of these strategies has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Translating the word to one that is in use in English makes it familiar, but can give also it erroneous connotations. For example, the word kuferaš (plural, kuferaši), which comes from the German Koffer (bag, suitcase), was applied to the many skilled workers who came to Bosnia when the Austrians annexed it in the latter part of the nineteenth century. An English equivalent like “carpetbagger,” which has the advantage of also being formed from the bags they brought with them, has the big disadvantage of being associated with the post-Civil War American South. Explaining the term by saying something like, “they used a disparaging term based on the suitcases they brought with them,” could work if the term was used only once or twice. But when it is used many times, you need something short and repeatable, preferably something that can be used in various combinations, in singular and plural, perhaps as an adjective and an adverb. Using the foreign term in the English text helps with all those things but removes any sense of intimacy and, especially when it appears just once or twice, might lend a rather token exoticism to a text. Each of these has to be weighed and considered with every term, and as I noted above, this books has lots of these. Here’s a partial list:

Vlach, Swabian, Chetnik, Ustasha (pl. Ustashas) or Ustaša (pl. Ustaše), Turks (who are not Turkish but rather Bosnian Muslims, likely of Slavic descent), Sarajlija (pl. Sarajlije), who are the long-time residents of Sarajevo, Ragusan/s (from Ragusa, as opposed to Dubrovnik), gospar/i (see Ragusans), gospoda (gentlefolk, in older Turgenev translations), and gospodja/đa (madam or madame or Mrs.), opapa and omama (great-grandma and great-grandma, sort of), amidža (uncle), tante and teta (both meaning auntie), stric (another kind of uncle), rodica (girls cousin), rođak (boy cousin or just plain relation), Ilidžan (person from Ilidža), dajdža (yet another kind of uncle), komšija (neighbors), domobranac (Home Guardsman), and there are more. I think most of these I have managed to work into my English text. It is a thousand pages long after all, so anyone with the patience and courage to persevere–it is worth it–will learn what they mean, a little like the reader Aleksakis’s Foreign Words learns the words of Sango that pepper his novel, such that by the end they can decipher the final twenty lines or so, which are all in that language.

Then there are the Turkishisms, which float in and out of the text depending on the characters involved, the places where the action takes place, and the historical moment.

And so there might be a teferič or teferičiti se, komšija, meraja, mejdan (megdan), avlija, dimija, jelek, dajdža, mahala, presamiti se, kasaba, kazan, komšiluk, amidža, ćoškast, čaršija, telal, birvaktilski (one of my favorites), tuč, fajda, jorgan, potaman, dulum/dunum, dirinčiti/ati, kirija, hamal(in), behar, taman, bašta, dindušman, javašluk, šehit, kaldrma, ćepenak, sulunar, muhurleisan, rahatluk, ćumur, memla, čaršaf, kandža, badava, kaldrmisan….

I love these words. They linger on my tongue as I am reading aloud, and I have no idea, generally, what how to evoke them in English. (I shall do my best, Miljenko.)

Editing time, in about a month and a half, will be when I make definitive decisions about most of these. For now, I just keep lists.

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Description of a Description of a Place

Imagine translating several Balzac novels with all their intricate Parisian detail but never having been to Paris, or a couple of Aleksandr Tišma novels without ever having set foot in Novi Sad. These are of course possible things to accomplish. The words are the words, and today more than ever before we have maps and more maps, including satellite images that can provide a great deal of detail about many places across the globe. The spatial relationships would be clear enough through such means, and historical maps could of course provide a lot of information.

But there is no substitute for exploring a place with one’s own feet and one’s own senses. Why this is the case is complicated to explain. Partly it has to do with the things not described by an author but present in a place and implicit in its description. This might be slope or color, the texture of the materials in walls or streets, the brightness or dullness of an object in relation to others in an area, which means the play of light and shadow. A wide street is different from a broad street, and the same word might be used for either in the source. Selecting the one that corresponds more closely to the place, which in turn can bring it uncannily to life in the receiving culture, could very well boil down to how one—the translator, in this case—experienced it on a given day, the rare day, when she or he got to see it in person.

This is just about the words, you might say, and of course I can’t disagree with you. But the words can just as easily discourage or encourage one in one’s reading. Any mediocre writer and any mediocre translator is capable of ruining the pace of a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire book. And not knowing the place where an author has focused her or his attention is one way this failure can occur. It is a failure than can affect the reception of an author in another culture forever.

This understanding, which has been gnawing at me from inside throughout the translation of long passages of this book, brought me to Zagreb a couple of days ago to meet and speak with my author and, yesterday, to Sarajevo, to walk, listen, observe, smell, compare, and try to feel the place that inspired so much of Kin.

Today I found Veliki Park, where Franjo Rejc would wait each year for the arrival of autumn, on a bench that according to my author no longer exists, amid the old Muslim gravestones that once formed a part of the old Čekrekčinica Cemetery. And I found Mejtaš, the street and the square, crossroads of my author’s childhood, which seemed smaller than I had anticipated, exactly as if I had been the child through whose eyes the little square appears, like a major thoroughfare, in narrative form—I hope I have captured this sense. And I found the street Sepetarevac, perhaps named for the steps (sepeti) climbed by the Jewish porters to transport good to the shops on Bjelave (which I also found).

Each of these places has a precious, unique feeling for me personally now, not just because I have visited them, but because I spent so much time trying to describe them and then went to seek them out. A couple of days ago, as we were sitting in the cafe of Zagreb’s Kino Europa, I told my author that I felt as if we have known each other for a very long time, though of course that may simply be the illusion of literature. He is very skilled at this illusion, magic, sorcery, call it what you will. He was kind enough to agree with me—maybe we have known each other for a long time.

More Sarajevo tomorrow. I suspect I’ll have a hard time sleeping tonight.

 

Another Lost Giant

This is from “The Bee Journal,” which could be its own short book—an internally coherent novella of a little over 170 pages—and is one of the final three parts of Kin I am translating, along with “Parker 51” and “Sarajevo Dogs.”

While some appraised Plague and Exodus as an outrageous casserole, “the product of a megalomaniacal mind,” “a work of provincial learning that suffers from delusions of grandeur,” one big prank by a collection of idiots, or, simply garbage, the sort that occasionally appears everywhere as a result of the over-production of books, others, a small number, but largely more authoritative and powerful, greeted it as an epoch-making book, “the final actualization of a brilliant intellectual biography, proof of how the greatest literary works and historiographical syntheses take shape in the solitude of monastery cells, far from university cathedrals and academies, in peace and in silence, with anthropological reach into the depth of our civilization’s sub-conscience, magisterial cultural and historical ceremony and summation, a disclosure of the human and the apiary soul, a theological tractatus on insects and on flowers, which puts man and God face to face, even for those of us who don’t believe in either the one or the other. Plague and Exodus is all of this and much more!” This was what Professor of Aesthetics Ivan Focht wrote about [Đorđe] Bijelić’s book, but all the polemics were halted and all the derision died when Miroslav Krleža raised his head in defense of Bijelić’s work. He was not leaving his house anymore by then. He was old and found it hard to move. He was no longer writing, but he came forward on two occasions, to defend two books: Danilo Kiš’s A Tomb for Boris Davidović and Bijelić’s Plague and Exodus. Both had been written by Jews, one dealing with concentration camps, the other with beehives.

I find the interweaving of fact and fiction, literary history with invented literature, and the invented histories of invented literature, both fascinating and effective. It is just one of the many things Jergović does well in the book.

Olga and Zehra

Rounding page 340 and making good post-holiday progress, I continue to find little gems of passages, like this one in a chapter from Part Five of Kin, which is called in the source Inventarna knjiga, a play on “invention” and “inventories” that I think I can get at by simply calling it Inventories in the English (this is what I am trying at this point anyway):

One after another she gave birth to her five children. There were two by the time Olga arrived in town, and the others were all born with her there. Olga told Zehra she herself did want to have any more children. This was not an easy thing to accomplish because Franjo was pushy. He didn’t understand about children, only about his male needs. Zehra understood all this. In general Zehra understood everything and was able to reduce any overlong, complicated story to two or three sentences in which everything was simple, easy, and clear. She was not embarrassed by a single one of Olga’s stories—this was important, for her other friends were easily embarrassed—but rather found her way around in each one and managed to say something to comfort her. How was this possible given that Zehra was a Muslim, a very devout Muslim who kept to all the rules of her faith and did everything every day, when she was awake and when she was asleep, in accordance with it? The answer is strange but simple: Olga belonged to a different world and a different faith, one that determined that the women could have their heads uncovered and all sorts of other things that were different from Islam. If Olga had been a Muslim, Zehra would have died of shame, run away from her confessions, and never seen her again. But as it was, she not only did not have to run, she could always be helpful. Before Olga’s faith, Zehra was always completely free, just as Olga was free before Zehra’s. This made them best friends.

The unlikely friendship of Olga and Zehra is one of the many standalone moments of the book, and its splicing together of these moments—through stories interwoven with other stories like the great network of the Habsburg train system that Olga’s husband Franjo helps to build and manage (other literary references come together here, most notably to Danilo Kiš but also to Robert Musil and others, this in another superb standalone chapter entitled “Kakania”)—is a major achievement, constructed of sentences that do something like what this one is doing, weaving and interweaving these stories in verbal tapestries around an inscrutable center that is perhaps best expressed as history through memory, family, and the stories of a family.

The Personal and the Historical

A major feature of the Kin, sometimes rehearsed with surprising results, comes out in the following passage quite vividly. The narrator is describing life with his mother.

She didn’t clean the apartment anymore or wipe away the dust. She only worked at her work place. And she was a good, thorough head of the accounting department. She followed the rules with strictness, in accordance with the Stubler heritage. Quite the Swabian. But in her life she did nothing more. She did not move and did not care about the current state of things around her.

This bothered me during the first years after Nona’s death. But later no. I grew accustomed by degrees to her unhappiness as an aspect of my own family circumstance. We lived together, but until the war all we ever talked about was how badly she felt. During the war in Croatia, she was at the height of menopause. A year or two earlier she had had a serious hemorrhage. She went three times to have the upper layer of skin scraped off in order to remove all the blood. I was with her during every instant of this. She had no one but me, so I experienced my mother’s menopause from beginning to end in great detail. Both the psychological and the physical aspects.

When they attacked Croatia, it had been some time since she had stopped losing blood. But she was in the depth of depression. She would take her yearly vacation time only to lie in bed for three weeks. It’s hard to live with someone who doesn’t move from her bed and doesn’t care. She said her life had no meaning and she would kill herself. She had no one else, so she had to say this to me. At night she would call a telephone number for help in such situations. This kind of line had been working for years in Sarajevo. It was started by a psychiatrist couple. But now it was someone else who answered. The other two had different jobs now. They were Ljliljana and Radovan Karadžić.

The move from the personal to the historical throughout the passage, which becomes most vivid in the final line, will blind many readers to the underlying implied connection, which is perhaps not so blatant as Tolstoy’s juxtaposition of Vronsky’s breaking the back of his racehorse Frou-Frou and the near death of Anna because of Vronsky’s getting her pregnant, but has a similar feel. I can’t remember now whether I’ve ever seen an equation of war with menopause, though as I think it about it, the blood letting that ends with the cessation of life is a natural connection that someone must have made in the past.

Editing and Self-editing

I think about the importance of editing often as I’m working. Partly this is because I am also editing other people’s writing as I write and translate. It is easier to separate these activities when the writing is of very different kinds, but sometimes they cross paths, and then I have to be careful that the voice of one first-person narration does not slip into another first-person narration. That, I think, is happening with this post. It sounds to me a bit like the narrator in Vassilis Alexakis’s Mother Tongue (La langue maternelle), the English translation of which (by Harlon Patton) I am editing for Autumn Hill as I work on Kin. Alexakis has a lovely first-person narrator’s voice, but it is quite different from Jergovic’s. How they are different would take me too long to figure out–I need to get back to both!–but here is a very brief example of the kind of editing that seems to be absolutely essential in both the self-performed and the other-performed kinds.

Re-reading a recently translated passage, I came across this phrase, which ends a section in which the narrator has commented on the disappearance of an entire line of relatives from the past: “Mi smo u rodu s fantomima i duhovima.” I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my draft version had “We are the relatives of phantoms and spirits,” which is basically what the phrase means but misses an obvious connection to the very title of the book, which is explicit in the expression, “u rodu s…” (in relation to…). The slight change to “We are kin to phantoms and spirits” raises the register ever so slightly and strikes for the whole line a more effective, more moving tone.

I find myself looking at every sentence this way, which is of course no way to finish on time but gives me so much more pleasure than just rushing forward to get through the pages (and pages). It will be a better book, I hope, as a result of these little things.

That familiar ache

Teaching an extra graduate course for a colleague hoping to come up for tenure ate up more of my time in the fall than I thought possible, leaving me far behind my self-imposed December benchmark for translating Kin (not to mention absenting me from this weblog). Then, out of the blue, I got asked to serve in a new administrative post that made me wonder at the possibilities. This is the only reason to take up a new administrative post, I believe, so after wondering over it, I took it up. The inevitable result was even less time and, most importantly, no regular routine.

Finally in the past few weeks I’ve been able to establish one, counting up words and pages to see how much I can reasonably accomplish in what segments of time–is three thousand words per week enough? (probably not). At last, based on what I’ve managed to crank out in the past week or so, and the fact that the work gets faster as I do it more, it looks feasible. I remember this from previous long prose translation projects, numbers of words or pages per day projected out mentally to see whether I could finish by the deadline, revisions to those numbers as I worked, then a grown certainty and comfort as the project gained momentum. This is not like writing an article or review. You can stop where you need to stop for that. You write as much and as well as you have the time to do so. With this, there is an end from the beginning, and a whole bunch of words you need to get to, pages and pages of them. Maybe four thousand words per week? (probably not).

Nor is translating poetry the same, despite the fact of all those words–it’s true, there are fewer of them as a rule, but more importantly, and let’s face it, who’s waiting for you to finish those poems? You can take your time. Actually, the argument for timeliness is really flipped on its head: You really should take your time. Tomorrow that line or image will work itself out, and if not tomorrow, then the next day or the day after that. Here, however, not only do you have pages and pages of prose words, which is one rather interminable feeling thing, but there also seem to be people waiting, strange as that might seem from your poet’s perspective. Best get to it, every day, the earlier the better, and for as many hours each day as you can spare.

Hence the conclusion, which I’ve remarked on before though maybe not in writing until now, so here it is: The difference between translating poetry and translating prose? The backache.